Australian mental health experts are concerned the push to “socially distance” and the flood of information about the COVID-19 pandemic could harm people vulnerable to mental illness.
Physical isolation from friends and family, a deluge of bad news on social media, disruption to daily routines and worries over the future of one’s health are a dangerous recipe for a mental health crisis, experts have warned.
And for people who are already suffering from pre-existing conditions like anxiety, depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder, the ramifications of coronavirus panic could be particularly harmful.
In response, mental health researchers are calling on Australians to implement a number of safety strategies to ensure they are able to withstand the months of disruption ahead, including limiting exposure to media to only checking the news once a day and keeping in touch with friends and family over the phone or video chat.
“We need to take mental health concerns seriously around this. When we are talking about doing social distancing, I think we really need to think more about physical distancing rather than emotional distancing,” mental health researcher and social worker Gregory Armstrong told SBS News.
“One of the things that is more contagious than the virus might actually be the panic itself.”
While Australia is still at the beginning of its COVID-19 response, a Lifeline spokesperson said they have already experienced a 15 per cent increase in the number of people calling the counselling line each day over the past month, with a quarter of all callers expressing concern about the coronavirus.
Mental health support organisation Beyond Blue has released advice on how people can protect themselves during coronavirus isolation, which includes limiting consumption of media coverage, keeping regular meal and sleep schedules and connecting with friends or family online or via telephone.
While a degree of anxiety about the pandemic is normal, a BeyondBlue spokesperson said anyone noticing symptoms they haven’t experienced before should consider seeking mental health advice.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has urged Australians to avoid “nonsense” on social media during a major press conference on Wednesday, and instead referred the public to official advice from the government’s chief medical officers.
Concern from Australian experts follows evidence emerging out of China’s Hubei Province, where the virus was first reported in December last year, of signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in people who were forced to live in lockdown for months.
Research published by The Lancet medical journal this month also found that quarantine could induce negative psychological effects, including PTSD symptoms, confusion and anger.
Australia has not yet introduced blanket lockdown measures like those seen in Hubei and Italy, but people who are suspected to have come into contact with a case of COVID-19 or have recently returned from overseas are being forced to undergo a 14-day isolation period.
Meanwhile, people who do not fall into that category are also being urged to stay home as much as possible and avoid unnecessary social gatherings which may increase feelings of isolation.
Head of the University of Melbourne’s Centre for Disaster Management and Public Safety, Professor Lucy Gibbs, said that much of the research on how people cope with natural disasters such as bushfires could also be applied to a global health emergency.
“It’s quite normal to be showing some signs of stress because it is an abnormal situation that we are dealing with and there is uncertainty involved,” she said. “[But] we have an extraordinary ability to adapt and to cope with change.”
Dr Armstrong said it was particularly important for people with preexisting conditions to ensure they have a plan to get their medication and maintain contact with their mental health professionals, even if that has to be over the phone or via video chat.
“This has got to be a sustainable period, we may be going through this for months to come,” he said, adding that while the virus is extremely serious, it’s important for people to remember that the vast majority of people who test positive make a full recovery.
Of more than 197,000 cases worldwide, 81,000 have recovered compared to approximately 7,900 deaths.
Dr Armstrong also urged those who weren’t experiencing the worst effects of the crisis to put “a little bit of extra special effort” and reach out to people in their community who might be struggling - and when you do reach out, make sure the conversation is not only about COVID-19.
“It’s about helping people move out of that obsessive or consumed space about what is going on,” he said.
As of Wednesday, only people who have recently travelled from overseas or have been in contact with a confirmed COVID-19 case and experienced symptoms within 14 days are advised to be tested.
Coronavirus symptoms can range from mild illness to pneumonia, according to the Federal Government's website, and can include a fever, coughing, sore throat, fatigue and shortness of breath.
If you believe you may have contracted the virus, call your doctor, don’t visit, or contact the national Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080.
If you are struggling to breathe or experiencing a medical emergency, call 000.
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